Some revelations about the past come with perfect timing. With the flare-up between Gaza and Israel permeating international headlines for the past three months, a hindsight analysis from one of the architects of the current situation is particularly pertinent.
Israeli media recently aired an interview with famed Israeli Major General Gershon HaCohen. Just to put things in perspective, HaCohen is a big name in the “who’s who” of the Israeli Defense Forces. Beginning his career in the Armored Brigades in the early 1980s, he was already in charge of training all the corps’ officers 30 years ago. During his 38 years of service, HaCohen fought in four wars and commanded thousands of men in various positions, including overseeing all of the IDF’s advanced training academies.
In the interview, the now-retired officer unpacked the effects of the 2005 Gaza Disengagement, the unilateral action taken by Israel to remove its presence from the Gaza Strip and forcibly expel some 8,000 Israeli residents who lived there. At the time, HaCohen was known to be an opponent of the Disengagement, which was likely why his superiors decided to give him the job of carrying it out.
Over the years, HaCohen has made several public references to what he saw as the catastrophe of the Gaza pull-out, calling it, according to one report, “the crime against the nation that I participated in.” There have been few if any detailed discussions with the general on the significance of the operation and its long-term effects. Until now.
Three Premises, Three Blunders
In a refreshingly candid way, HaCohen calmly and directly explains the reasons why the 2005 Disengagement was a strategic mistake and, equally interesting, which beliefs on the part of the Israeli establishment led to it taking place.
HaCohen’s case is as follows:
There were three premises that formed the basis of Israel’s decision to leave Gaza.
The first was based on a security perspective. Putting a geopolitical spin on the famous Frost quote, former American ambassador to Israel Martin Indyk declared in regards to the Disengagement that “good fences make good neighbors.” If Israel would remove its presence from Gaza entirely and establish a clear border, it would suck out all the aggression from Hamas and other militant groups. Why would the Palestinians need to attack Israel if they had their own delimited territory?
The second assumption had to do with a realistic force comparison between Israel and its neighbors in Gaza. Even if left to their own devices, Hamas and others would never be able to match the might of the technologically advanced, battle-hardened IDF. Gaza leadership would almost certainly never risk a confrontation with Israel, and if they did, they would lose.
And finally, the leadership in Jerusalem assessed the move diplomatically. If Israel were to make such a great sacrifice in the name of reconciliation, it would earn for itself international legitimization in regards to the peace process. Israel would be able to justify itself completely in the eyes of the global community if ever there was a need to use force against Palestinian aggression.
Over the past 13 years since the Disengagement, all three of these premises collapsed.
The “fence” that was supposed to make good neighbors only ended up allowing the conflict to escalate to a new level. With the Israelis gone and protected by a new border, militants in Gaza were able to freely invest in a massive military industry. Hamas organized its army from the brigade to battalion level. They set up the infrastructure necessary to build rockets and other long-range projectiles. And of course, their newfound room to maneuver allowed Hamas to create the complex network of attack tunnels that has been the terror of Israelis for years.
The second assessment was also deeply flawed. When Israeli strategists assumed it would be too costly for Hamas to attack (and a sure win in the unlikely case they did) there was a completely skewed conception of what such a conflict would look like. Hamas would not face Israel on an open battlefield as other Arab armies had in the past. They would terrorize their cities with primitive rockets, essentially Erector Sets packed with home-made explosives attached to propulsion engines, and draw in Israeli ground troops to fight an insurgent-type war on their own turf. Even more of an error was made when assuming Israel would have ample flexibility to respond to Gaza aggression. Israel had at the time years of experience dealing with militants in the West Bank. Eliminating terrorists in Hebron or Jenin was a relatively minor operation via overnight raids by an infantry company or spec ops team or two. Conversely, if Israel wanted to effectively deal with Hamas or Islamic Jihad forces in Gaza, they would have to essentially invade another country. To orchestrate an operation on that scale requires harnessing the full weight of the IDF on air, land, and sea. Additionally, as the bulk of the IDF’s manpower comes from its reserves, large numbers of civilians have to be called up, either to the front or to replace active-duty units participating in the offensive. As a result, many sectors of the country, in government and private industry, grind to a halt. All of this incurs a huge financial and human cost to Israel that it simply cannot absorb regularly.
But the biggest forecasting error was in the third premise. During the three large-scale operations Israel has launched against Gaza over the past ten years, each preceded by dozens, if not thousands of attacks emanating from the coastal enclave, Israel suffered unrelenting international condemnation. Far from achieving legitimacy, the trend of vilifying Israel’s actions in Gaza continues to become more and more mainstream every day.
Well Thought Out and Completely Wrong
There are some important lessons to take away from HaCohen’s breakdown of Israel’s current predicament and how it got there.
Israel’s Gaza challenge is one of the more modern examples of the results of the failed strategic consensus. It starts when all of the factors in a highly complex situation are assumed to be clearly understood. No alternative options are considered for understanding these critical points. Eventually, everyone forgets that they’re working with a large set of shaky presuppositions. In Israel’s case, every one of three “pillars” justifying the Disengagement was desperately misunderstood. What resulted 13 years on is a highly organized and heavily armed terror state to the country’s west and little to no international legitimacy with which to maneuver.
There is no silver bullet with which to overcome the inevitable pitfalls of strategic intelligence. Even the soundest methods and the best intelligence collection assets can yield erroneous conclusions. Ultimately, the most powerful improvements to intelligence come not from changes in methods but from changes in culture. Once the approaches to forming intelligence strategies become influenced by untested pre-notions, often the result of political or other bias, the course of the entire intelligence process, from gathering to analysis, becomes skewed. And of course, not all intelligence failures are the result of flawed consensus. Some of the biggest US losses in the intelligence arena occurred because America’s adversaries did a very good job at covering up their activities. Most, if not the overwhelming majority, of Soviet-recruited spies within the American government and military were simply the result of excellent trade craft. The failure to detect the transfer of nuclear warheads to America’s backyard during the Cuban Missile Crisis was not because the US took its eye off the ball, but because Moscow orchestrated a massive and painstakingly detailed counterintelligence effort to conceal the operation that even ended up fooling many high-ranking Russians.
But without a doubt, consensus reality contributed greatly to several intelligence failures, from World War II to the War on Terror. Prior to Pearl Harbor, for instance, American analysts had concluded (or to put it better, decided) that because it would be foolhardy for Japan to start a war with a nation that possessed ten times its industrial capacity, it was highly unlikely Tokyo would order any attacks on the United States. Little did they understand that Tokyo considered the oil and steel embargo placed on it by Washington as an existential threat. By 1941, Japan felt it was forced to act. The failure to identify and stop the September 11th attacks was also, to a significant degree, the product of a mistaken consensus. Domestic terror had hit the US before. Even Islamic fundamentalist terror. Al Qaeda and its leader Osama bin Laden were also well-known to the authorities, having carried out six separate attacks on Americans and US assets between 1992 and 2000. But the idea of a complex, well-organized conspiracy taking place on American soil by al Qaeda operatives was largely off the radar. Most officials saw the jihadist group primarily as a foreign threat and did not address the danger of a domestic attack seriously.
In intelligence studies, the realization of the dangers of this phenomenon gave rise to different methods to address it. The practice of “Red Teaming,” slowly gaining popularity in the corporate world as well, was designed to actively challenge a strategic assessment of the majority. It is the Red Team’s job to break down all of the underlying ideas of their colleagues and try to disprove them. This trick was popularized by the highly entertaining zombie apocalypse thriller World War Z when the Israeli intelligence officer describes his agency’s “10th man” practice.
Anyone with an interest in strategic thinking should be taking these ideas to heart.